Investigators from the office of Inspector General Mark Greenblatt concluded that when Zinke and his then chief of staff were questioned about his conversations with attorneys at the Interior and others outside the department, they were failing to fulfill their “duty of candor” as officials. to tell the truth, the report said.
“We discovered that both Secretary Zinke and the [chief of staff] made statements that misrepresented the circumstances in which: [the Interior Department] important decisions,” the report said. “As a result, we came to the conclusion that secretary Zinke and the [chief of staff] breached their duty of candor when questioned.”
Investigators found that Zinke and his chief of staff “made statements to OIG investigators with the general intention of misleading them.”
A letter from Zinke’s law firm included in the report pushed back its contents, calling the report “distorted and misleading” and questioning the timing of its publication. Zinke’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The watchdog began its investigation in 2017 to determine whether Zinke had been improperly influenced by Nevada Republicans and MGM Resorts International, who opposed the casino planned by competitors. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes wanted to open a gambling facility in East Windsor, Conn., a request that required federal approval. Zinke did not grant or deny the request; instead, he sent it back to the tribes. His action became the subject of intense investigation at the Interior and White House during President Donald Trump’s first months in office.
In the course of the investigation, the Inspector General’s office shifted its focus from the decision in the casino case to the veracity of the statements made by Zinke and his chief of staff.
According to the report, Zinke told investigators he based his decision on the recommendation of attorneys from the Home Office law firm. But the report found the evidence to contradict this claim. Domestic lawyers denied the investigators had spoken to Zinke, advised him or endorsed his decision not to take a position on the petition. And people Zinke denied meeting with said they were in regular contact with him to pressure him to reject the tribes’ application, according to emails and other documents obtained by researchers.
When told his story was contradicted by the evidence, Zinke doubled down, the report said. He claimed that while he may have socialized with then-Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) about the casino project, he did not remember a single conversation.
Investigators interviewed Zinke and his chief of staff twice in 2018 before Zinke announced his resignation as secretary late that year. under a cloud of ethical investigations, including the casino case.
In a harsh rebuttal in the report’s appendix, Zinke blamed the Inspector General’s office for releasing his findings so close to the November midterm elections. He pleaded for it to be released after the election. Zinke is the Republican nominee for a new seat in the U.S. House representing Western Montana, a race he is eager to win.
“Given the undue delay in completing the report, we find the timing of the publication of this report disturbing and inappropriate,” a lawyer for the former secretary wrote.
Zinke’s attorney also attacked the report substantively, writing, “There was no basis for even conducting such an assessment of Secretary Zinke, but it is crystal clear that Secretary Zinke acted lawfully and ethically in carrying out his duties.”
But the Trump administration’s own Justice Department, after receiving a criminal referral from the Inspector General for possible criminal offenses in the casino case in late 2018, took 2½ years to review. The delay effectively tied the inspector general to completing his administrative case, which the Biden administration assessed for six months before formally dismissing the case. Wednesday’s report was released a year later.
In early 2019, Zinke’s successor, David Bernhardt, approved the tribes’ petition to build a no-reserve casino in Connecticut, ending what was likely to be a lengthy legal battle.
The inspector general’s report comes six months after the same office accused Zinke of lying about his role in negotiating a land deal in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont. That investigation found that Zinke had breached his duty of candor when he told a federal ethics officer that his involvement in the deal was minimal. He claimed that his meeting with the project developers at the Home Office headquarters was ‘purely social’.
But email and text exchanges obtained by the watchdog told a different story.
They revealed that Zinke had communicated with the developers 64 times to discuss the design of the project, the use of his foundation’s land as a parking lot, and his interest in operating a brewery on the site. Investigators found that Zinke repeatedly violated federal ethical rules by representing his family’s foundation in negotiations for nearly a year. This violated an ethics agreement in which he promised not to do any work on behalf of the foundation after joining the Trump administration.
The report also revealed that Zinke had abused his official position by instructing some of his employees to arrange a meeting with the developers and to print documents related to the project. Federal officials are generally prohibited from assigning their employees duties related to their private business.
Although Greenblatt, who oversaw the investigation, was appointed by Trump, Zinke labeled the investigation a “political hit” by the Biden administration.
The Justice Department declined to press charges in connection with that investigation.
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